Seattle OPA refers mock tombstone probe to IG due to ‘conflict of interest’
Oct 3, 2023, 1:21 PM | Updated: 1:21 pm
The Seattle Office of Police Accountability (OPA) announced Tuesday they won’t be able to investigate an incident where video showed a Trump flag and mock tombstone of a man killed by Seattle officers in 2017 in the police precinct.
In a press statement sent Tuesday to media outlets, including KIRO Newsradio, the OPA said it has a conflict of interest in the case because a Seattle Police Department (SPD) officer assigned to OPA when the investigation was opened was among those accused of misconduct. The agency is referring to the case to the Office of the Inspector General.
The video in question is from January 2021, several months after the department abandoned the precinct during the 2020 protests on police violence. It was uncovered during an unrelated court case and published by The Seattle Times in July.
The footage from the room, which contains an area for bike repair and a gathering area with a couch, several chairs and a television, shows various items. The list of items includes a replica tombstone for Damarius Butts, showing the date he was killed by Seattle police, a Trump 2020 flag, a U.S. Flag, a Black Lives Matter logo on a piece of plywood, and an Anarcho-Socialist flag.
Butts was involved in an armed robbery of a Seattle 7-Eleven in 2017. When police confronted Butts, he fired at them, and they fired back. Three officers were injured during the incident, and Butts was killed after being shot 11 times. A 2022 inquest into the incident ruled that police were justified in their use of force.
The Seattle Times also notes the Trump 2020 flag, readily available during Republican former President Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, was hung “in possible violation of state law and department policy regulating officers’ involvement in partisan politics while on duty.”
The officer has since been transferred from OPA, following protocol, but due to the professional relationship he developed while working for OPA, they are referring the case to the Office of the Inspector General to avoid “the appearance of partiality.” OPA will not participate further in the investigation.
Joel Merkel Jr., co-chair of the Seattle Community Police Commission — a self-governed civilian group overseeing the department — said in a statement when the story first broke, that the tombstone being displayed is indicative of a wider culture issue at SPD.
“I was horrified that this was something that would be displayed in a break room of the Seattle Police Department,” Merkel said. “This is a culture that just cannot exist in any police department, much less a police department that’s under a federal consent decree … to have a tombstone for him in their break room, while his inquest into the circumstances of his death had already begun, is just absolutely appalling.
“We are also extremely disappointed in SPD’s explanation of the video to the community, which clearly does not match what we can all see on the video,” Merkel added.
Seattle police have also recently come under fire for comments made by Seattle Police Officers Guild Vice President Daniel Auderer appeared to mock the death of a woman killed by an SPD cruiser.
Contributing: Sam Campbell, KIRO Newsradio